On July 22, 2006, my husband an drove across the desert in our air conditioned car. At the same time, eleven-year-old Olivia Luna Nogueda and her older sister, Marisol, seventeen, attempted to cross the Arizona desert from Mexico on foot. 110-degree heat broiled the landscape. The girls were trying to reunite with their parents who were in Atlanta, Georgia. They traveled as part of a group of about twenty people being led by a smuggler. Olivia became ill, and the smuggler abandoned her and her sister.

An excruciating headache struck Olivia. She stumbled, hallucinated, and passed out. Her body cooked while she was still alive.

Marisol, the seventeen-year-old, stayed with her little sister until Olivia was unconscious. Then Marisol, dizzy and desperate, searched for help. She eventually reached the Sells Baptist Church on the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation. With the guidance of Marisol, Tohono O’odham police found Olivia and performed CPR until she was picked up by ambulance. The eleven-year-old child died on the way to the hospital. Her body temperature was 106 degrees.

The policies that led Olivia and Marisol to attempt to cross the desert on their feet reflect a resurgence of Nativism in the United States. Nativism is either a policy favoring native inhabitants as opposed to immigrants or the push toward a revival or strengthening of the “native” culture over against cultures that arrive with immigrants. It especially opposes the merging of cultures by prolonged contact and often represents a dread of alien radicalism.

The historian John Higham characterized the nativist, saying, “. . . he believed that some influence originating abroad threatened the very life of the nation within.” (Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, 1965.)

Nativism has recurred throughout the U.S. history, beginning with early settlements and “the first naturalization laws when only whites of ‘good moral character’ could be naturalized. It continued through such things as the Chinese exclusion laws, the development of eugenics, the Johnson-Reed national origins quota act of 1924, such events as the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Semitism, and the contemporary backlash against undocumented immigrants. It was especially dominant during times of economic distress. See Peter Schrag, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism and Immigration, 2010.

During times of economic growth, we have pulled immigrants toward our land as a source of cheap labor. During times of struggle and fear, we attempt to push them back into their home countries. Schrag talks about contemporary issues that contribute to current social anxieties: “the flight of jobs overseas, the crisis in health care, the tightening housing market, the growing income gaps between the very rich and the middle class, and the shrinking return from rising productivity to labor.” (10)

During the depression years of 1929-1939, we forced 400,000 Mexican immigrants and their U.S.-born children out of the U.S. into the interior of Mexico. People who looked “Mexican” were rounded up in raids of public and private places. Ironically, the U.S. deported 396,900 people in fiscal year 2011, a similar number to all deported during the depression. Schrag says that nativism and racism are not unique to the United States. “What makes them significant,” however, “is that they run almost directly counter to the nation’s founding ideals.” (2) We see ourselves as a “city on a hill,” imagining that we are a shining example to the world. Our founding documents talk about the rights of man and equality.

Except for indigenous peoples, we are a nation of immigrants. Nevertheless, each immigrant group was denigrated in its time. Those already here called the new groups unassimilable because they felt such groups were badly educated, crime prone, and diseased. In 1901, Missouri prohibited the ‘importation of afflicted, indigent, or vicious children.’” (7)

Somehow, as we make our calls for immigration reform and try to answer nativist accusations, we have to remember people like Olivia. Her desires were simple. She tried to reunite with her parents at a time when immigration policies did not make that possible in any safe fashion. Immigration issues are extremely complicated, but we owe it to the memory of those lost in the crossing to wrestle with the issues and not fall into easy explanations.

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